Esophagus Cancer Overview

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Treating Esophagus Cancer TOPICS

Chemotherapy for cancer of the esophagus

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Usually the drugs are given into a vein or taken by mouth. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body.

Chemo by itself rarely cures esophageal cancer. Often it is combined with radiation or surgery.

Chemo can be used in several ways:

  • As the main treatment along with radiation
  • Before surgery (most often with radiation) to shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove. (This called neoadjuvant treatment.)
  • After the cancer has been removed by surgery. (This is called adjuvant treatment.) This treatment is used to try to kill any tumor cells that were too small to be seen and may have been left behind.
  • Alone or with radiation to help control symptoms like pain or trouble swallowing when the cancer can't be cured. (This is called palliative treatment.)

Side effects of chemotherapy

The side effects of chemo will depend on the type of drugs given, the amount taken, and how long treatment lasts. The most common side effects include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased chance of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Bleeding or bruising after minor cuts or injuries (from a shortage of blood platelets)
  • Tiredness or shortness of breath (from a shortage of red blood cells)

Along with the risks above, some chemo drugs can cause other, less common side effects. Most side effects go away once treatment is over. Anyone who has problems with side effects should talk with their doctor or nurse as there are often ways to help.

People with esophageal cancer often have trouble eating and problems with weight loss before the cancer is even found. Treatment like chemo and radiation can cause painful sores in the mouth and throat, which can make it even harder to eat and get good nutrition. Some people with esophagus cancer need to have a feeding tube put in during a minor operation before treatment. This allows liquid “food” to be put right into the intestine. A feeding tube can help prevent further weight loss. It may help make it easier to get through treatment.


Last Medical Review: 12/26/2012
Last Revised: 12/26/2012